Alec Garnett, who this week will assume one of the top positions in Colorado state government, hopes most people never learn his name.
“A U.S. senator that represents Colorado once said to me, ‘Should I be concerned that when I walk through the airport no one recognizes me?’” said Garnett, a 37-year-old Democrat who lives near the Capitol. “I don’t want them to know me. If they know me it means they’re worrying about what I’m doing.”
Garnett, who served as House majority leader the past two years, was recently elected by his colleagues to serve as speaker for the next two, succeeding the term-limited KC Becker. It’s a role that comes with enormous responsibility and influence. Among other duties, a speaker is largely responsible for setting the majority’s agenda, managing the politics of how and when to push on a policy, or not. The speaker must make tough choices: saying no to a member who wants permission to bring a certain bill, for example, or settling disagreements among caucus members. The speaker negotiates with the governor’s office, the minority party and with state Senate leadership, and has a bully pulpit like few others in the building.
In other words, there’s plenty of opportunity, as speaker, to throw one’s weight around.
That’s not Garnett’s preferred approach.
Garnett had planned on being a lead sponsor of Senate Bill 217, the landmark police reform bill that resulted directly from protests against police violence and racial injustice. He stepped back, he said, after speaking with Latino lawmakers.
“They came to me and said, listen, this really isn’t about a white guy. The Latino community has had a distrustful relationship with law enforcement for a very long time,” he said. “They made a ton of sense. Instead of leading from the front, I led by standing behind other members and lifting up what they believed was most important.”
“He creates teams,” said state Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, who served previously in the House with Garnett. “One of the reasons he’s going to be a great speaker is he highlights other people’s strengths and creates ways to allow everyone to shine.”
He’s averse to drama in a building filled with it, and whip-cracking is not his thing. It is, however, part of the job.
“I’m not going to always get it right, but I’m ready,” Garnett said, of those tougher calls. “Hopefully people see me as being fair. They’re putting their trust in me to make those decisions.”
Garnett has plenty of experience watching others lead. Well before he served under Becker, or former Speaker Crisanta Duran before her, Garnett worked for U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, and his father, Stan Garnett, was the district attorney in Boulder for a decade before stepping down three years ago.
He describes the Perlmutter years as formative. They began in his early 20s, as a campaign volunteer when Perlmutter was first running for Congress. He made himself useful by learning how to fix the copy machine, and later moved to Washington, D.C., to work for Perlmutter in Congress.
“There’s a firmness about him, but he’ll make tough decisions in a way that doesn’t cause more anger or angst than is necessary. Some people don’t have good personal skills. He has good personal skills,” Perlmutter said.
Matt Knoedler, the Republican former state lawmaker, said he saw that firmness up close in 2015, during Garnett’s first term. Garnett was sponsoring a bill concerning regulation of yoga studios.
“When the bill came before committee, one yoga studio testified against it. Some of his colleagues on the Democratic side felt a little squeamish on a yes vote after that,” Knoedler said. “He just gave them this unblinking stare when they started wavering a little, and they snapped out of it and voted ‘yes’ unanimously. It was so impressive — you don’t have that kind of pull, unspoken, without some genuine respect.”
Garnett said he hopes to wield what pull he has, in his final term at the statehouse, to inspire his colleagues to listen more — to each other, to people crafting or advocating for or against a bill, to their constituents. He also said he will be focused largely on pandemic response and recovery, which will no doubt define much of state government’s work in general in the coming years.
The pandemic has damaged the state budget, and, according to state revenue projections, likely will continue to do so at least for the duration of his speakership. That means more hard decisions than usual, with 2020 having created so many new problems, but with much less money to go around to solve them. He knows the legislature will have to be picky.
He’s bullish — like his predecessor, Becker, was — on being the speaker who can finally say they helped solve Colorado’s chronic problem of underfunding transportation, though he said he doesn’t know how that will happen. He believes cash bail, which keeps poor people behind bars while wealthier people pay for freedom, is unfair, but he hesitates to call for ending it because of fiscal implications. He wants to lower health care costs, but he says he’s not sure whether he supports a return of 2020’s scuttled bill to create a public health insurance option.
“We’re going to have to be creative about how we solve some of these,” Garnett said.
This is what he signed up for, and long ago aspired to. He knew he wanted to work in politics as a young adult, and, indeed, it’s all he’s done. In addition to his work for Perlmutter, Garnett was executive director of the state Democratic Party and worked on his father’s unsuccessful bid for attorney general, before running for the House District 2 seat, winning at age 31.
Asked whether his lack of experience outside of politics limits his worldview as a legislator, Garnett said, “You wouldn’t want your plumber to come in and have this be the first time they’ve fixed a clogged sink.
“Sometimes having somebody who’s studied policy, policy theory, policy-making, watched it on the staff level on the federal side and from the state side, is actually helpful.”
So focused on politics is Garnett that when asked what he’d do if he didn’t work in this field, he didn’t offer any alternative career ideas for himself. He’s always wanted to be in the public sector, he said, because it struck him as the most direct way to affect change.
The Capitol is brimming with ambitious politicians, and Garnett is no exception. Lawmakers generally brush aside questions about their political futures, but Garnett told The Post that he’ll be on the lookout for opportunity. He also said he’s at peace with the fact that it may not present itself.
“Serving in the legislature is like playing college ball. It’s an honor to do it,” he said, “but more people get to do it than go on to play in the NBA. … That’s totally cool with me.”
The job of speaker, despite its prestige, has not always proved to be much of a launchpad. Multiple recent Colorado speakers have tried and failed to reach higher office.
Garnett theorized that lawmakers can easily delude themselves into believing that “people outside the building are paying closer attention to you than they actually are.”
He said he’s in no hurry to capture their attention, anyway.
“It’s very cool and it’s a huge honor and I’m very, very, very, appreciative of this opportunity,” Garnett said. “But it is not lost on me that people outside this building have really busy lives and are focused on getting their kids dressed, getting them to school, making ends meet, how they’re going to get their car fixed. And they actually don’t know who the speaker is.”
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